Twitch at 10: How the streaming platform has gone beyond gaming in a decade

·12 min read

It’s hard to believe that Twitch is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The streaming platform has evolved from a site mostly for gamers to a destination to chat and play music for all walks of life – and maybe make some money along the way.

Sure, Twitch has had big-time mainstream moments including when platinum-selling hip-hop star Drake played "Fortnite" with Twitch megastar gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins in 2018 that set a new record for the most-watched viewers on the platform, nearly doubling the previous total.

And while Blevins is among the most viewed with 17 million followers, he praised fellow streamer and gamer Ludwig Algren, who set a new world record in April for having more than 270,000 subscribers during a 30-day streaming binge called a “subathon,” where he played video games, cooked, chatted and slept. “Ludwig” surpassed “Ninja,” and his 269,000 subscribers.

"If the first 10 years of Twitch was everyone figuring out to crawl and take their first steps... the next 10 years are going to be a full-on sprint," said Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, Twitch’s head of community productions who’s been with the platform since its start in June 2011. "Service-changing innovation was something that happened once in a blue moon during the early days of Twitch, but in the most recent years, we're seeing innovation happen on a weekly basis."

"Ten years ago we wouldn't have imagined that Drake would play some Fortnite with Ninja, or TwitchPlaysPokemon would be completed by millions of players, so it's difficult to imagine just what our creators will surprise us within the next 10 years," Graham concluded.

How Twitch started

Twitch began a decade ago as an offshoot of Justin.tv, a ubiquitous live streaming site founded by Justin Kan in San Francisco in 2006. It quickly became a site for gamers who would spend hours playing various games and ask viewers to subscribe to their channel, such as gaming great Sean "Day9" Plott who suggested subscriptions. Viewers could choose whether to pay for what they saw and liked. Plott became Twitch’s first partner and the first to have a subscription channel.

Twitch officials say currently more than 30 million people visit the site daily and have seen more than 67 billion hours of viewership – enough for the entire human race to watch over eight hours of video per person. Also, Twitch claims more than 26 million channels were live on the platform in 2020, and more than 13 million people decided to stream for the first time on Twitch in 2020.

Of course, there’s increased competition where gamers and other creators can make money on streamers like Patreon, Koji, and OnlyFans. Yet, Twitch has seemingly shown some resilience after its debut in June 2011. Twitch said the median viewership for creators making at least $50,000 annually is 183. For example, that means a musician who plays consistently on Twitch for up to four hours per stream could have an average audience of a few hundred, according to Twitch.

Its channels can range from a 14-year-old DJ spinning tracks that are older than he is to a veteran comedian finding a new home to share his new material to a 78-year-old gaming great-grandmother who’s a beast on "World of Warcraft."

It even proved a savior of sorts during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to gamers, comedians began doing live comedy shows, and a flock of DJs from around the world who couldn’t play in clubs and festivals began holding sets on Twitch, getting paid for their work as casual onlookers-turned serial streamers began congregating to the Amazon-owned platform.

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Twitch officials said its community watched more than 1 trillion minutes in 2020 – up from 600 billion minutes in 2019 and even helped to raise more than $111 million in charity last year.

“I don't think anyone's first thought was to be a 'savior,’” said Erin Wayne, Twitch’s head of community and creator marketing. "However, as gamers have proven their ability to mobilize for charitable needs, we all simply thought, ‘How can we help?’” Bringing people together in digital and meaningful ways was always what we were good at, and it just so happened that the skill to do so was needed more than ever.”

While you know about “Ninja,” meet some other creators and personalities of Twitch.

DEERE is here

Nearly five years ago, DEERE set out to be the drag queen of video gaming.

“I started my drag officially the day I started my Twitch channel,” said the makeup artist and gamer with a passion for playing horror games like "Dead by Daylight," a title she helps promote with the developers. "I can appreciate any video game experience of not knowing what horror and suspense are coming next. DEERE is here.”

Not only does DEERE, with 43,000 followers, typically stream in six-hour stretches five days a week, but she’s also the founder of Stream Queens, where she leads a group of dozens of drag streamers on Twitch.

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And DEERE said she is proven wrong over and over again about any fears she and others like her would not be accepted in a space dominated by straight white men. And those trolls be damned, DEERE said, as the love and acceptance on Twitch has been overwhelming many times over.

“Twitch has been a blessing. We’ve been able to cultivate a community of all kinds of drag artists, kings, and queens mixed in with the artistry of the gaming culture that’s a bit of an unexplored area,” said DEERE, who much like other gamers, prefers not to use their real names for safety reasons. “We exist and we can say that we’re here and queer and we’re not too bad at playing games, either.”

And DEERE says she looks forward to when she and her other Stream Queens can meet their fellow streamers and fans at the next TwitchCon in person to talk gaming.

“I’m so looking forward to the world opening up!” DEERE said.

No joke: comic staying on Twitch post-pandemic

As the pandemic put the world on lockdown, actor-comedian Paul Scheer said he stumbled across Twitch as he was looking for a creative outlet to express himself, and of course, tell some jokes beyond his weekly podcast.

He tried YouTube, but felt he was performing behind a wall. He said Instagram was like window shopping, but Twitch felt like a perfect fit. He brought along fellow actor-comic Rob Huebel and they began doing a version of their stage show, "Crash Test." Soon, Scheer brought in other friends like actors Jerry O’Connell and Lake Bell, and he renamed his channel to FriendZone (with nearly 17,000 followers) where they could experiment and have fun.

“We’re like let’s come up with some bizarre bits,” said Scheer, who's starred in TV shows including "Veep" and "Black Monday." “One of the reasons I’m enjoying it is the unpredictability and also that the audience is a part of the show and they’re jumping in to make it funny and interesting.”

Comedian Paul Scheer says he intends to keep performing on Twitch post-pandemic.
Comedian Paul Scheer says he intends to keep performing on Twitch post-pandemic.

Scheer said one of the show's funnier moments is when O’Connell randomly called in from a COVID-19 testing site near his home in Calabasas, California. O'Connell's antics have somewhat of a running bit jokingly called, “Where’s Calabasas Jerry?”

While Scheer has been working during the pandemic, he has no plans to leave Twitch as he looks forward to performing on stage again. He likes how this is global and is a bit more unrestrained from working in TV and film.

“We’re like, ‘Who else can we pull into this?’ Video streaming to me is what podcasting was 10 years ago, and that’s something I’m really excited about,” Scheer said. “There’s so much to be done here in this space and Twitch has proven to be a great outlet for us.”

The Gridiron Gamer

At first, you might think that Los Angeles Chargers star running back Austin Ekeler is just another pro athlete using a streaming channel to stroke their ego.

Think again. The easygoing Ekeler, who went undrafted in the NFL before breaking it big with Chargers and getting that bag with a new big-money contract, wanted to do more than just play games on his popular Twitch channel that he started in 2019.

NFL star Austin Ekeler says he talks more than just about gaming and sports on his popular Twitch channel. Ekeler said topics include societal issues and mental health.
NFL star Austin Ekeler says he talks more than just about gaming and sports on his popular Twitch channel. Ekeler said topics include societal issues and mental health.

“I feel like my life has been very humbling and we’re all trying to find our way, so I just wanted to get rid of the middleman and just talk and interact directly with them,” he said. Ekeler's engaging conversations on his channel of 28,000 followers range from the obvious – gaming and sports – to society, mental and physical health, and living a fulfilled life.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) breaks away from Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann (56) during the second quarter at SoFi Stadium.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) breaks away from Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann (56) during the second quarter at SoFi Stadium.

“I have some pretty harsh rules, the channel has to be positive, and if it’s controversial, you better be able to back it up because I have too many followers for some toxic energy,” said Ekeler. He also credits his Twitch followers for their support when he was injured and missed several games last season.

“This is something that I don’t take for granted,” Ekeler said. “That’s what streaming does. It makes me seem more human than just seeing me on TV on Sundays. I’m not some character, especially to those subscribers who just know me as Austin. That’s cool.”

With the success of his stream, Ekeler along with his agent started the Gridiron Gaming Group. Their goal: Helping athletes find similar success through streaming to “bridge the gap” between them and their fans.

“My community has grown to a level I didn’t even expect,” Ekeler said. “I’ve learned that life is all about perspective and having a positive outlook. I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

Singing into sunrise

"My mom is always telling me to get some sleep, but I dunno, I’ve never been a morning person," said Los Angeles-based self-taught musician-singer Lizz Vega, who streams on Twitch several nights a week when many of us are asleep.

Lizz Vega, a self-taught musician, is happy that playing on Twitch is helping provide for her family during the pandemic.
Lizz Vega, a self-taught musician, is happy that playing on Twitch is helping provide for her family during the pandemic.

"A lot of my fans are in Europe as my schedule works great for them," said Vega whose profile says she plays "chill harp vibes" for her 30,000 followers.

Vega began on Twitch playing video games in 2014, but she stopped after 12-hour streaming sessions over a six-month stretch, and spent nearly four years doing some “soul searching” and trying to make it big in nearby Hollywood. Along the way, a then-boyfriend gave her a guitar and Vega began learning how to play as “music was the only thing where I started to feel at peace.”

In 2018, Vega returned to live streaming on various platforms, which ultimately led her back to Twitch and back to her parents' house. Soon, Vega began earning a following on Twitch from all of her late-night music sessions and learning how to play other instruments including the harp and piano.

Vega's able to make money from her sessions, which has come in handy, especially after her father, who worked the third shift at a petroleum company in Long Beach, California, was laid off due to the pandemic.

“I had to step up and help,” Vega said. "It feels so good to do that for my family as it allows them to see what I’m doing with this and that it’s not just a phase, but an actual living. One day I hope to make enough money to where my father can retire and not have to work again."

As for her time on Twitch, Vega said she’s excited about her growing community "where you can be accepted for being yourself."

'How old did you say you were?'

"I'm 79," said WowGrandma78, the Arizona gamer who has six children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren and has amassed more than 38,000 Twitch followers.

She’s been playing her favorite video game, "World of Warcraft," since she built her first computer in 1998, but didn’t start streaming on Twitch until Jan. 2020. And the self-professed night owl, who plays on the platform from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., proudly says she hasn’t missed a day since.

WowGrandma78, shown along with her poodle Zoey, has been an instant hit since the 79-year-old great-grandmother from Arizona began gaming on Twitch in 2020.
WowGrandma78, shown along with her poodle Zoey, has been an instant hit since the 79-year-old great-grandmother from Arizona began gaming on Twitch in 2020.

“My followers think I’m good. I try to push myself as hard as I can to be good as the others I play with,” WowGrandma78 humbly said about where she stands in the multiplayer role-playing game where she kills monsters and participates in group fantasy quests.

She faithfully plays the same character, too, a Restoration Druid. “I’m a healer so their lives depend on me,” she said. And for those detractors who might want to talk smack or intimidate her, she sometimes says, “Would you say that to your grandma?”

WowGrandma78, a widower, says she loves to stay busy. Prior to the pandemic, she was directing children’s musicals and has been a musical director since 1979. She encourages her older peers to keep active minds.

“I hope 'World of Warcraft' keeps mine sharp,” she said. “I hope playing does keep me from getting dementia. Believe me, I’m in no rush to get tested. It’s like with your muscles, if you don’t use them, they dry up. It’s the same with your brain.”

Currently, WowGrandma78 is fixated on not only improving her play but also wants to make her Twitch stream “a bit more fancier” to keep pace with her much younger contemporaries. This includes creating an animated emote of her adorable toy poodle named Zoey.

But don't mistake WowGrandma78's kindness for weakness.

“I don’t play 'World of Warcraft' to do cutesy things,” she said. “I play to win.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Twitch at 10: Meet some of the creators who make it tick

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